[Taxacom] double-peaked mountains (was: Wilkins on species, again

Ken Kinman kinman at hotmail.com
Thu Nov 28 20:42:12 CST 2013

Dear All,                
        I have to disagree with Kirk here when he says "that the more relevant question is, what are taxa?" I say this is confusing apples and oranges.  Higher taxa (genera and above) are human constructs, if they contain more than one species.  However, species taxa are special.  They are real, but they are fuzzy, and thus the endless debate about them.  
      As for Michael's question, "is the question 'what bird is that' answerable?"  In many cases, it clearly is, because the gap between the species "American robin" and any species closely related to it is great enough to make the answer very clear.  It is a REAL, clear cut species.  Many species are even more distinct and less likely to ever hybridize with any related species.   
       The trouble comes in the minority of species in which the species is in the evolutionary process of splitting.  It is sort of like a double-peaked mountain with summits very close together.  Whether it is a single mountain with two peaks (two subspecies if you will) or should be classified as two separate mountains, depends on both the history of how they formed (which can be investigated) and their future (which can only be the subject of educated guesses).  There is clearly a REAL mountain there, but whether it is two mountains or one makes it a FUZZY reality regarding whether it is two separate things or just a more complex single thing. 
       You can argue about it until the cows come home, but it often largely depends on future events.  If one summit eventually collapses into a shoulder of the other, then those arguing that it was just one mountain claim victory, but if the summits continue to separate intact, the two mountain adherents can claim victory.  We won't know for sure until such future events occur.  
      Same with a species that may or may not truly be splitting.  If they continue to split over a period of time, the 2 species adherents will win.  If they instead merge back together into a much broader zone of integradation, then the one species adherents will win.  But we won't know until those future events happen, so it is largely futile to argue about it now either way.  
      HOWEVER, my main point is that we either have one REAL species or two REAL species.  To argue that they are NOT REAL just because they are fuzzy (are there two species or one) does not make sense to me.  So I still argue that species are real, but too often frustratingly fuzzy because speciation is rarely quick, and if a species is still in the process of splitting, one cannot know if it will complete the splitting process or not.  The argument over one vs. two species is understandable, but to deny their REALITY (whether it is either double or single) is a philosophical quibble that I find puzzling.    
                        ----------------Ken Kinman. 

> Date: Thu, 28 Nov 2013 19:03:39 +1100
> From: mesibov at southcom.com.au
> To: kfitzhugh at nhm.org
> CC: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
> Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Wilkins on species, again
> Kirk Fitzhugh wrote:
> "The more relevant question is, what are taxa? Assuming species are taxa. Wilkins treats species as if they're things to be explained. All I've perceived during my career have been organisms/semaphoronts. Never species or taxa."
> Unless the only thing you've ever perceived is a blooming, buzzing confusion of sensory data, the default categoriser you were born with has allowed you to perceive 'chair', 'table', 'tree' and the other favourites of philosophers. Wilkins and others argue that we see species in the same way. That is, 'species' isn't a category, but 'honeybee' is.
> People had folk taxonomies long before taxonomists became folk. Making finer and finer distinctions in species categories, and working on explanations of why two recognisably different honeybee species came to be (sorry) is stuff you do after the bee phenomena have registered.
> Note that the 'What is a species?' question is one Wilkins sees as a matter of definition based on an hypothesis - choose your favourite from among his 26 possibilities.
> Don't you think the question 'What bird is that?' or 'What spoon-headed worm is that?' is answerable?
> -- 
> Dr Robert Mesibov
> Honorary Research Associate
> Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
> School of Agricultural Science, University of Tasmania
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